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Nurturing Your Child's Growth Through Developmental Activities

Updated: Apr 25

A child removing toys from a box while her parents watch

As a parent, you naturally want your child to grow up to be the best that they can be. Developmental activities are a great way to exercise multiple areas of their development and lay the groundwork for a healthy, happy future.

This article will explore why developmental activities are crucial and help parents understand how to best leverage these tools for the benefit of their little ones.

In this article:

Developmental domains: the context for activities

Pathfinder Health divides child development into 4 major developmental domains, each of which is equally important in helping a child reach full developmental maturity.

  1. Cognitive

  2. Movement

  3. Social-emotional

  4. Language

Note: Other sources sometimes divide these developmental domains differently, so don’t be confused if you’ve seen milestones categorized slightly differently elsewhere.

Developmental activities are specifically designed to target one or more of these 4 areas.

1. Cognitive

Cognitive development involves the way a child thinks, learns, and solves problems. Cognitive milestones include skills such as critical thinking, understanding cause and effect, thinking abstractly, and engaging in make-believe play.

Examples of cognitive activities

  1. Mirror play: Hold your baby in front of a mirror and point to your reflections. Mirror play is a great way to help develop your baby's visual senses and self-awareness.

  2. Sorting laundry: Sorting games introduce children to the concept of grouping and classifying, fueling their critical thinking at an early age.

  3. Egg shakers: Fill empty containers or plastic eggs with noisy objects like sand, beans, or rice and tape them shut. Make two containers for each object/sound and ask your child to match them. This requires your child to listen carefully to detect the variations in sound and use memory and critical thinking to match the pairs.

A child reaching for round wooden shapes

2. Movement

Movement (sometimes referred to as physical or motor development) involves the growth and changes in a child’s body, including physical abilities, coordination, and balance.

Movement can be further divided into gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills involve the large muscles in the body, such as those in the arms, legs, and torso, and include crawling, walking, running, and kicking a ball.

Fine motor skills involve the small muscles in the hands and fingers and develop as a child learns to control their movements and use their hands and fingers to achieve more intricate milestones like picking up blocks or writing.

In the early years, making sounds also reflects fine motor development because it uses the small muscles in the mouth, tongue, and jaw!

Examples of movement activities

  1. Obstacle courses: Constructing indoor courses (including simple pillow courses for babies) or navigating through natural obstacles outside encourages planning, coordination, and persistence.

  2. Pulling paper strips from an empty tissue box: This boosts your baby's fine motor skills and lets them discover new textures.

  3. Copying dance moves: Copying your moves promotes coordination because it requires your child to focus on what you're doing and connect what they see to how they move their own body.

  4. Simon Says: Physical games help to develop gross motor skills. They also teach children to follow directions and take turns and boost memory skills.

3. Social-emotional

Social-emotional development reflects your child's evolving interactions with others and awareness and understanding of themselves. It includes abilities like playing with other kids, cooperation, and identifying and responding to emotions.

A baby sits and claps with their mothers

Examples of social-emotional activities

  1. Modeling conversation: Responding to and mimicking your baby's sounds and facial expressions will model back-and-forth conversation for your baby.

  2. Role-playing: Whether it’s doctor-patient or chef-customer, role-playing helps kids understand different perspectives.

  3. Board games: Educational games encourage social interaction, cooperation, teamwork, and good sportsmanship among players. Children learn to take turns, communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, and work collaboratively with others.

4. Language

Language development is the process of building communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal (gestures and facial expressions). It includes acquiring vocabulary (both understanding and using words), learning how to put words together to make sentences, and comprehending others’ communication.

Examples of language activities

  1. Word play: Activities that play with language, from rhyming to tongue-twisters, instill a sense of fun in communicating.

  2. Narration: Take advantage of everything that your child sees and does throughout their day to enrich their language growth. For example, at the grocery store you can talk to your child about what you are putting in your cart, what color it is, and what it might taste like. Narration is a wonderful way to help your child make connections between language and their lives!

What makes an activity "developmental"?

Developmental activities are activities that are intentionally designed to support a child's acquisition of specific skills, knowledge, and abilities in one or more of the 4 developmental domains. They are tailored to match the child's current stage of development.

And not only do these activities promote development, they also provide a great opportunity to track a child's development and identify red flags at the earliest possible age.

Developmental activities are a great tool to engage with your child in a way that is fun for them but also helps them work towards important developmental milestones. Even just a few minutes a day doing targeted developmental activities can have such a big impact on a child's development!

Reba Troxler, developmental psychologist, Pathfinder Health

The importance of simple activities

Often, the best learning games are actually extremely simple developmental activities. Although these may seem overly basic to an adult and unlikely to engage a child, this simplicity is intentional and beneficial for a number of reasons:

  1. Ease of understanding: Children grasp concepts more effectively when activities are uncomplicated and easy to understand. Simple activities help kids focus on learning specific skills or concepts without feeling overwhelmed, leading to better comprehension and retention.

  2. Skill building: Simple activities serve as building blocks for more complex skills. By starting with basic activities, children can gradually progress to more challenging tasks, allowing them to develop skills incrementally and feel a sense of accomplishment at each stage.

  3. Engagement: Children are often more likely to be engaged by simple activities because they are less intimidating and more approachable. Children are more likely to participate actively and enjoy the learning process when activities are simple, interactive, and fun.

  4. Creativity and Exploration: Simple activities encourage creativity and exploration. Kids have the freedom to experiment, problem-solve, and express themselves, fostering imagination and innovation.

A baby reaches for water being poured from a watering can

Every seemingly small activity is a step toward your child's greater understanding of their world!

Developmental activities vs. play

Although developmental activities can and should be enjoyable for children, they are not necessarily the same as play.

Structured developmental activities offer targeted learning opportunities to support skill enhancement and academic readiness.

On the other hand, "play" is often more spontaneous, exploratory, and driven by the child's own interests and desires. Play fosters creativity, imagination, social skills, problem-solving abilities, and emotional development.

Play is a foundation to learning and exploring, and developmental activities build upon that foundation to create targeted activities to help meet developmental milestones.

 Kavita Naik Cherry, occupational therapist, Pathfinder Health

Providing opportunities for both play and structured activities can provide children with a well-rounded developmental experience that fosters growth across multiple dimensions. Look for ways to combine both, such as fun learning games!

Developmental activities provide opportunities for children to refine and practice essential skills and important milestones, all hidden in the disguise of play.

 Emily Tower, physical therapist, Pathfinder Health

Why developmental activities are important

Children's brain development

The first 5 years of a child’s life are particularly crucial to their health, well-being, and the overall trajectory of their life. In fact, 90% of a child's brain develops by age 5. This is the time when the foundations for future learning, health, and behavior are established.

Graph of brain growth during the first 5 years

Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself and form new connections, is at its peak in childhood. Activities that engage children in novel experiences and challenges literally shape their brain's circuitry.

This means that by actively participating in developmental activities with children during these first 5 years, parents, caregivers, and educators can support their holistic development, nurture their individual strengths, and lay a strong foundation for their child's future success.

Growth across developmental domains

Although a particular developmental activity might be specifically designed to encourage certain skills, most activities also contribute to development in multiple other domains.

1. Cognitive activities

Cognitive activities lay the groundwork for development in the other domains in a variety of ways:

How cognitive activities contribute to physical development

Improved cognitive skills can lead to better coordination between the brain and muscles, enhancing both gross and fine motor abilities.

Cognitive development also impacts sensory perception, spatial awareness, and the ability to understand cause and effect relationships, all of which are essential for physical development.

How cognitive activities contribute to social-emotional development

As children enhance their cognitive abilities, they become better equipped to understand their own emotions and those of others. For example, understanding cause and effect helps kids navigate social interactions, manage conflicts, and regulate their emotions effectively.

How cognitive activities contribute to language development

The ability to think, reason, and process information forms the foundation for language acquisition and communication. Cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and problem-solving contribute to vocabulary expansion, grammar comprehension, and overall language fluency.

2. Movement activities

Physical development gives children the tools to engage, experiment, and explore their world, which in turn facilitates their development in the other domains.

A mother holding a toy in front of a baby doing tummy time

How movement activities contribute to cognitive development

Regular physical exercise improves blood flow to the brain, which enhances memory, concentration, and overall cognitive abilities.

Additionally, as kids develop their gross and fine motor skills, they are better able to physically explore their surroundings, allowing them to develop their understanding of problem-solving, spatial awareness, and cause-and-effect.

How movement activities contribute to social-emotional development

Physical play fosters emotional regulation and self-confidence. Through physical challenges and accomplishments, children build resilience, self-esteem, and a sense of achievement, which positively impact their social-emotional well-being.

Engaging in physical activities with peers also encourages social interaction, cooperation, and teamwork.

How movement activities contribute to language development

Activities that involve hand-eye coordination, finger dexterity, and oral motor skills contribute to language acquisition and articulation. For example, gestures, pointing, and imitating movements are early forms of communication facilitated by physical development.

Additionally, activities that strengthen a baby’s core muscles help to stabilize their diaphragm and support breath control for speech.

3. Social-emotional

Social-emotional development significantly contributes to development in the other domains.

How social-emotional activities contribute to physical development

Social-emotional skills help children regulate their behaviors and emotions, leading to better stress management and reduced anxiety. This emotional regulation positively impacts physical well-being by promoting healthy habits, improving sleep patterns, and enhancing overall physical health.

How social-emotional activities contribute to cognitive development

When kids develop strong social-emotional skills like self-regulation, empathy, and relationship-building, they are better equipped to engage in complex cognitive tasks, learn effectively, and adapt to new challenges.

How social-emotional activities contribute to language development

Through social-emotional growth, children learn to express themselves, understand others' perspectives, engage in meaningful conversations, and develop language fluency.

4. Language

Language development also plays a crucial role in shaping children's physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development:

How language activities contribute to physical development

The act of talking requires coordination of various facial muscles, tongue movement, and breath control, which in turn supports the development of fine motor skills essential for physical activities and coordination.

How language activities contribute to cognitive development

Language is a powerful tool for cognitive growth as it enables children to organize their thoughts, solve problems, and analyze information. Through language development, children enhance their memory, critical thinking skills, and ability to comprehend complex concepts.

How language activities contribute to social-emotional development

Effective communication through language helps kids form relationships, express their feelings, understand others' emotions, and navigate social situations.

Filling a gap until formal services start

Developmental delays are relatively common. Of the nearly 4 million babies born every year, 20% will have some form of developmental delay. However, many delays are only temporary and, with proper interventions, a child may outgrow them in time.

Early intervention services (EIS) are a critical part of helping children with developmental delays maximize their potential. Because children’s brains have the greatest neuroplasticity before age 5, treatments and interventions have the greatest impact when they start as early as possible. 

A mother holding a child and listening to a healthcare professional

However, families often face significant wait times before their child is referred to a specialist, receives a formal diagnosis, and/or begins treatment. Developmental activities at home can fill this gap.

Although they are not a substitute for specialized care, engaging in these activities as much as possible will encourage a child to continue learning and growing while they wait for formal services to begin. 

Choosing the right activities for your child

Tailoring activities to different ages

One size does not fit all when it comes to children and developmental activities. Tailoring developmental activities to your child's age is crucial to ensure that the activities are appropriate, engaging, and beneficial for their current stage of development.

The following tips will help you select the best developmental activities for your child's age:

  1. Understand developmental milestones: Familiarize yourself with typical developmental milestones for different age groups. This knowledge will help you identify what skills and abilities are expected at your child's age and guide you in selecting relevant activities.

  2. Consider physical abilities: Tailor activities to match your child's physical capabilities. For younger kids, focus on activities that promote gross motor skills like crawling or walking. Older children may benefit from activities that involve more complex movements and coordination.

  3. Cognitive challenges: Adjust the cognitive complexity of activities based on your child's age. Younger children may enjoy simple cause-and-effect activities, while older kids can engage in games that require problem-solving, critical thinking, and memory skills.

  4. Language development: For language-based activities, choose age-appropriate books, songs, and communication games that align with your child's language development stage. Encourage vocabulary expansion and language comprehension through interactive conversations and storytelling.

  5. Social-emotional skills: Tailor activities to foster social interactions and emotional understanding based on your child's age. Younger kids may benefit from basic emotion recognition activities, while older kids can engage in cooperative play and discussions about feelings and relationships.

  6. Sensory exploration: Provide sensory-rich experiences tailored to your child's age. Infants and younger children may enjoy exploring different textures and sounds, while older kids can engage in more complex sensory activities that stimulate all their senses.

  7. Adaptability and flexibility: Be open to adjusting activities based on your child's individual pace and interests. Observe their responses and engagement levels to determine if the activities are suitably challenging and enjoyable.

By customizing developmental activities to your child's age, you are turning your home into a stimulating and supportive learning environment that will cater to their specific needs and abilities at each stage of their early years.

A young girl mixes with a wooden spoon

Selecting materials for developmental activities

Having the right resources on hand makes it easy to incorporate developmental activities into your child's day. Even simple household items can often become the foundation for educational fun. Some basic items to have on hand include:

  • Building blocks: These provide the literal and figurative building blocks for numerous activities and let children work on motor skills, coordination, creativity, understanding of cause-and-effect, and spatial awareness.

  • Basic art supplies: From crayons to modeling clay, these promote fine motor skills and allow for creative and emotional expression.

  • Picture books: Looking at books with your child is a wonderful way to increase their vocabulary. As they get older, you can use books as the basis for conversations and imaginative play.

  • Kitchen items: Bowls, measuring cups, wooden spoons, and other safe items can be used in many ways for sensory exploration.

  • Balls and sports equipment: Children hone their physical development and coordination through active play. They also learn social skills such as taking turns.

A mother and child stacking blocks

How Pathfinder Health can help

Our 1000+ targeted activities

On our app, we offer over 1000 developmental activities, organized by age and developmental domain. Many of these activities take only a few minutes, making it easy to incorporate enrichment into your child's day.

Each of our developmental activities is designed to help kids reach key milestones in a functional way. Having play based developmental activities is a great way to help young children naturally learn critical skills, generalize these skills, and have fun while they do it!  

 Sanjana Jayaram, speech language pathologist, Pathfinder Health

Determining frequency of activities

Each of Pathfinder Health’s activities features an estimated duration and suggested frequency as a guide for parents. 

Many activities take only a few minutes and should be done multiple times throughout the day. Examples of this type include tummy time activities for young babies and narrating or discussing everyday life with children of multiple ages. The more frequently children engage in these activities, the more they will benefit.

Other activities need not be done as frequently. These may include special outings, such as a nature walk or trip to the grocery store, that are beneficial but not everyday events. Or they may be one of many different activities that target the same skill(s) and can be alternated to keep a child from becoming bored.

To help you make the most of your time with your child, you can filter activities by developmental domain, duration, frequency, and even location (such as at bedtime or while out in your community). This allows you to easily choose activities that fit into your family’s life while maximizing your child’s enrichment.

Pathfinder Health developmental activities banner

The Takeaway

Developmental activities are about far more than keeping a child entertained. They are opportunities for understanding, learning, and growing in each of the 4 developmental domains during the years when they learn and grow most rapidly.

By encouraging your child to engage in these activities, you can help them reach their full potential and set them up for success in their future personal and professional lives. 

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